Library of Congress Historical Cycling Photos

Julia Obear, 1922 bicycle messenger

The U.S. Library of Congress is a treasure trove of historical data.  Much of the information stored there (which is technically part of the deep web) is copyrighted.  But, periodically the Library releases images and other information that is “Free to Use and Reuse”.  Recently the Library added a small batch of cycling images to this category.  Some of these free images pose questions.  In the above photo, Ms.Obear, a cycling messenger for the National Women’s Party, is astride a traditional diamond-framed bike, with wide drop bars, large wheels, and no apparent rim brakes.

In the above photo you can see that this cyclist is riding a fixed gear machine, sans any rim brakes on the front or the rear.  There is twine run between the two ends of the handlebar (why?) and this cyclist is wearing some stylish cycling couture, with comfortable low heeled shoes.  The large chainring and small cog at the rear wheel makes it seem that this bicycle was set up for training.  One must remember that in these early days of cycling, huge gears were more the norm, and cyclists would typically dismount to ascend steep hills.  Were these cyclists stronger than their modern day counterparts?

1942 Washington DC family out on a ride.

Another interesting photo in the Library of Congress’ free archive is this 1942 photo of a Washington D.C family out on a cycling adventure.  The child is astride a substantial looking kids’ trike, and her parents are riding American cruiser style bikes of this era.  I have to wonder where that little girl is today, and if she is still alive and still riding.

Fast forward to the 1970’s and we have Hertz getting into the biz of bicycle rentals.  A precursor to bike share?  The outermost bike at the lower left of the photo is a Gitane, equipped with centerpull brakes and downtube shifters.

1934 Argentinian tandem cyclists

The above photo depicts a pair of cyclists who started out in Buenos Aires in 1934 on a tandem machine, pictured above, who arrived in the U.S. two years later, alive and well.  The vintage tandem has rim brakes, front and rear, with the captain’s levers installed on the top of the upright bars.  It looks like there are two chain rings up front, but it’s hard to tell if there is a rear derailleur.  Either way, this journey is impressive.

Don’t try this at home!

If you are going to ride down a stairway, maybe first you should try to source a bike with a huge rear wheel.  That is probably what made the above feat possible. There are many other free to share images at the Library of Congress, and not just in the category of cycling.  I hope you have enjoyed these images, and for more, look here.


Bicycle Design History and Resources

Gompertz velocipede with front freewheel – June 1821 – courtesy of Polytechnic Journal.

I recently discovered a treasure trove of bicycle history technical materials.  Germany’s Polytechnic Journal was founded in 1821 and has since been digitized.  The journal was conceived by Johann Gottfried Dingler, a German chemist who worked for Augsburger, a German manufacturer.  He was primarily interested in printing and dyeing, but later got involved in publishing scientific journals.  His goal was to explore “natural history, sciences, chemistry, mineralogy, planting”, and machine theory, among other topics.

Sturmey Archer 1903 3 speed hub, courtesy of Polytechnic Journal.

The Polytechnic Journal is a unique resource which documents creative innovations of the time for a variety of scientific innovations – cycling being one of those innovations. The above drawing of the first internal hub invention – Sturmey Archer’s 3 speed hub – accompanies a discussion in the journal of the many ideas and innovations that were developed to address the need to change the gearing ratio on a bicycle to accommodate differing surface grades encountered by the rider.

F. Konig eccentric pedal design – courtesy of Polytechnic Journal, 1903.

Lancelot & Coste, March 1903, eccentric dual bottom bracket, courtesy of Polytechnic Journal.

Here are a few more of those ideas – a pedal which rotates around the crank arm, and a dual bottom bracket which can alter the gearing ratio at the crank.

One of the first freewheels – designed by Markt, Kirk and Merifield – courtesy of Polytechnic Journal, 1903.

But the freewheel, possibly first invented in 1821 (but not officially acknowledged until 1869), is one of the most important innovations in cycling’s history.  Without the ability to freewheel, all of us would be riding fixed gear, with no ability to coast.  If you want to learn more about the history of freewheel design, I recommend Bicycle Design, by Tony Hadland and Hans-Erhard Lessing.  This book contains detailed discussions regarding most of cycling’s engineering innovations, and has excellent illustrations to accompany the only occasionally fatiguing text.

The above examples are just a few of cycling history’s innovations which are documented in this journal.  The journal is written in German, but using a translate tool, I found it to be easily understood. I look forward to further explorations of this resource which continued in publication until 1931.  There are 33,448 articles in all.  I’ve got lots of reading to do!